As with the 2008 Democratic primary campaign, the 2016 race has reached a point of being legitimately competitive. Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, long thought to be a sure thing, faces a serious challenge from a candidate who is not even a member of the Democratic Party - independent US senator Bernie Sanders, of Vermont. Where Clinton is the veteran pol, a scarred rock of the establishment, and professional calculator and pragmatist, Bernie Sanders is the outsider, a progressive rabble-rouser, and genuine idealist. Though they find common ground on many issues, where they differ presents a clear choice for primary voters.
I have some thoughts on this race, and wish to present them in advance of when voting and caucusing begins, which now is only a few short weeks away. I ask that you, dear reader, work from two assumptions: one, that former Governor Martin O'Malley (D-MD) will not win the nomination of the Democratic Party, and two, the none too certain idea that either Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton will win election as the forty-fifth president. These assumptions are critical for these points to be salient.
The First Term Landscape
Voter turnout in the 2010 midterm election was low. This is in keeping with an American electoral pattern. Turnout tends to be high when a presidential candidate is on the ballot, and low when there is no such candidate. The president faces the voters every four years. However, one third of the senate, and the entire House of Representatives, face election every two years. These ballots include numerous state and local officials. Additionally, every ten years, the United States conducts a census and, using that data, state governments redraw electoral districts. The 2010 midterm was the census election, and the Republican Party won major victories across the board.
These victories put the Republican Party in control of most US state governments, allowing that party to redraw districts in a way to help protect their public officials from future electoral challenges (note: some states, mostly those traditionally leaning Democratic, such as California, do not allow politicians to draw districts). The term used when drawing creative districts to insulate incumbents is "gerrymandering". No party is innocent of this, though the critical point is that the Republican Party is nearly a sure bet to hold most state governments and the US House of Representatives until at least the next national census, in 2020.
The first term of whoever the next president is, is likely facing a Republican-controlled House of Representatives throughout it. The US senate presently has a slight Republican majority, but that could change in 2016, and if not then, it could flip to Democratic control in 2018. However, it is possible it will have a Republican-controlled senate for two, and perhaps all four, of those years.
All legislation begins in the House of Representatives. That body controls domestic policy and budgets. With a divided congress, the Democrats in the senate check many symbolic political maneuvers of the Republican House (such as numerous repeals of various legislation passed by an earlier Democratic House of Representatives). A Democratic president ensures a veto for any legislation that makes it through the senate. For legislation originating from Republicans to pass through congress and win the support of a Democratic president, compromise is required on all sides. Hardliners, unwilling to compromise despite this divided arrangement, helped lead to various crises, including a near default on national debt obligations and a government shutdown.
The first two years of Barack Obama's first term as president saw the bulk of his domestic legislative accomplishments. This is because his party controlled the entire Legislative Branch - the House of Representatives and the Senate - and through him, the Executive Branch. It was in these two years that Wall Street reform legislation passed, the bailout of the automotive industry passed, the economic stimulus package passed, two (female) appointments to the US Supreme Court achieved confirmation, and his signature legislative achievement, the Affordable Care and Patient Protection Act ("ObamaCare"), passed, among others. Since that time, only compromises have made it through, and often at the brink of some potential self-inflicted disaster.
The one area a president is freer to act without congress is in foreign affairs. This has been where President Obama has focused his efforts since the Republican takeover in 2010. The fruits of this labor include the Iran Nuclear Deal, the recent freedom of American prisoners in Iran, normalizing relations with Cuba, the historic international climate agreement, various trade deals, and so forth. If a Democratic candidate wins in 2016, with a Republican House of Representatives, and possibly, a Republican Senate, they too will find foreign affairs the one area they enjoy far more freedom of action.
Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are out on the campaign trail, making pronouncements of what they intend to do if elected. In the context of what a first term would actually look like, a voter may take most of these pronouncements with a grain of salt. Clinton has mentioned a new tax on wealth, proposing raising taxes to thirty percent on all Americans making $1 million or more, increasing capital gains taxes, and raising taxes on carried interest. She also proposed a tax inversion on corporate mergers between American firms and foreign firms, referred to as an "exit tax". Another proposal is a $275 billion plan to rebuild national infrastructure, paid for in part by closing various tax loopholes, as well as the creation of a national infrastructure bank. She intends to impose a high-frequency trading tax with the aim of improving the stability of markets, and she hopes to impose compensation limits for private employers, principally those in the financial services sector. She intends to establish a national interest rate cap of thirty percent on all credit cards, seeks an increase in Social Security benefits for those caring for elderly relatives, and has endorsed a plan to raise the federal minimum wage to $12 per hour. There is, of course, a great deal more.
Senator Sanders goes a great deal further than Hillary Clinton does. No surprises here, as he styles himself as a democratic socialist. His list is a progressive wish list, ranging from introducing a carbon tax (aiming to reduce carbon pollution by 40 percent by 2030 and by over 80 percent by 2050) to providing all Americans with universal, single payer healthcare, similar to Canada and some European nations. He seeks to ensure employers provide paid family and medical leave, proposes lifting the Social Security tax cap beyond its current level of $250,000, and hopes to raise the individual tax rates on higher earners "substantially higher" than they are presently. He seeks to break up large financial institutions deemed "too big to fail", while raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, and he intends to provide free college tuition to all students. As with Hillary, there is a great deal more.
Barring a radical and nearly impossible sweep of Democrats winning over the House of Representatives in 2016 or 2018, little, if any, of either candidate's domestic priorities have much chance of passing congress. This is especially the case for Senator Sanders; given not all Democrats are progressives. It was, after all, conservative Democrats who forced President Obama to drop a single-payer, government option from his signature healthcare legislation. Many of the compromises Obama made during those first two years of legislative achievements were compromises between Democrats, rather than compromises between Democrats and Republicans.
What It Might Look Like
A Democrat winning in 2016 very likely will look a great deal like Obama during his second term. This means, be it Sanders or Clinton, very little will occur on domestic policy, short of brinkmanship compromises to keep government functioning. Most of the work will be protecting the legislative achievements of Obama and his party in those first two years from a hostile Republican House of Representatives. Given the next census is in 2020, this will likely be the scenario for the entire first term of either Democratic candidate.
If Republicans achieve more gains in the Senate, reaching a super-majority, Clinton and Sanders will play more defense than Obama has. Furthermore, it is highly unlikely such a scenario will prove favorable for judicial appointments preferred by Democrats and progressives. In fact, there is some theorizing that if a Democrat wins in 2016, Republicans will simply block any nomination to the Supreme Court, leaving the court with eight - or even seven - justices, rather than nine, as there is no constitutional requirement stipulating the filling of all nine seats. It is also worth noting that throughout all eight years of Obama, he was never able to fill all lower court vacancies (the Republican Party has vowed to confirm no appointments at all in 2016). Neither Clinton nor Sanders will find this any easier. Other appointed bodies, such as seats on the Securities and Exchange Commission, those on the Federal Election Commission, and so forth, may likewise face long vacancies.
Points for Hillary Clinton
All of this, a very real possibility if not probability, means the next president will mostly be a foreign affairs president. With this in mind, Hillary Clinton is far better suited. She knows, intimately, numerous governments and figures, and has long connections with leaders in the public and private sectors throughout the world. For Sanders, he would likely be meeting most of these individuals for the first time. She also has the Biggest Gun in her holster, former president Bill Clinton. In most cases, and in most places in the world, Hillary or Bill intimately know the actors. This is a privilege from longevity in chief positions of institutional power within the United States.
Clinton also has another strong advantage rooted in her longevity: she knows the institutions of government. She is far better suited for achieving some measure of domestic action through creative uses of existing powers. There can be little doubt she knows better what bureaucratic role in some department is best for implementing the particulars of policy aims, without congressional influence. This is an advantage for an institutional creature of government, of which Clinton most certainly is. Being a calculating pragmatist, she may achieve some domestic policy aims through compromise, though likely a shell of what she has proposed on the campaign trail.
Relegated to being a foreign affairs president and creative institutional wonk means her best domestic asset is her gender. Just as Obama was inspirational to huge swaths of the nation as a person of color, Hillary will inspire women and girls of all stripes. She will put a face to the idea a woman may attain any goal she hopes to achieve. Though symbolic, it no doubt has influence and meaning.
Clinton has many clear negatives. For one, as a calculating pragmatist rather than liberal ideologue, she is very likely to bend too far for her base, especially for progressives. For example, she may win a minimum wage increase, but not as high as she seeks ($12 per hour) and thus far less than progressives seek ($15 per hour), while trading that for something like a tax cut on employers. She is also, from years of being the target of conspiracy and hyperbole, rather politically paranoid. It is reasonable to carry an expectation she will step on a self-made landmine, ripe for partisan exploitation.
Points for Bernie Sanders
Being a democratic socialist turned Democrat upon receiving the party nomination; his election will almost immediately be transformative. A vote for Sanders is a statement! No policy achievements needed. If the American people elect such a candidate, it will demonstrate something once unimaginable. Giving such a staunch progressive the bully pulpit will help make progressive policy ideals more palatable and normalized. Though he has far less chance than Clinton does of getting anything done on the legislative side, his advocacy will go a long way. He may set himself up well for a second term, which follows a national census. If this census creates a politically competitive landscape, Democrats may achieve the positioning needed to retake the House of Representatives. A second term, with a Democratic congress, plus the possibility for a more converted American public, could prove historic.
Sanders biggest problems are a near-complete lack of foreign policy heft. The man is no moron, to be sure, and may find a stronger footing in time. Regardless, he will not make up for Hillary Clinton's phone book within the next year. Furthermore, his moves toward foreign policy is out of necessity in a primary campaign - his passions have always, and will always, be domestic. This is a weakness if the next president will spend most, if not all, of their first (and possibly only) term as a foreign affairs president, otherwise serving as a check on a Republican House of Representatives.
A Clear Choice
Democratic primary voters enjoy an opportunity to choose between two qualified and competent candidates, who differ on many issues. Though most differences are matters of degree, priority, or tone, some are substantive. Of the questions primary voters consider, one must include the practical reality of what a Democratic president will face in their first term. A voter for Sanders will face a tremendous disappointment if voting with any belief they are getting free college or single-payer healthcare in a first term. A Clinton voter must consider the weight and media circus of potential self-inflicted wounds (along with related congressional hearings), calculated compromises that may easily be seen as selling out, and a far less passionate commitment to progressive ideals. Both will serve as a check on Republican policy priorities, seeking to retain much of President Obama's legislative achievements, while spending much of their first term focused, either from passion or from necessity, on foreign affairs.
Notes on Constitutional Amendments
Sanders brings a unique risk for progressives. He is a strong advocate for amending the US constitution. Conservatives and liberals both have lists of tweaks and outright changes they hope to make to their guiding document. The primary change Sanders seeks is the removal of money from politics. The Supreme Court of the United States has interpreted money as speech. With free speech being a constitutional right, in 2010, the court broke down laws governing political spending, and opened the door to unlimited money without any accountability - anonymous humans may donate any sum to political action committees for political advocacy. This case was Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, ironically regarding a propaganda film attacking Hillary Clinton, and the Supreme Court split its decision by a 5-to-4 vote, with its conservative majority carrying the day.
Sanders seeks to have congress propose the amendment to ensure money is not speech. Though a Republican congress is likely never to do such a thing, this approach is wise. The problem comes from many progressives recognizing a Republican congress will not propose such an amendment, and instead are calling for a constitutional convention. For progressives, such a convention would be equivalent to kicking open a hornets' nest. There are two ways to amend the US constitution. One is the manner Sanders directly proposes - super-majorities in both the House and the Senate pass a proposed amendment, and that amendment achieving ratification by the legislatures of thirty-eight US states. The other way is for the state legislatures directly proposing a constitutional convention, independent of congress. States, rather than congress, then propose amendments, with ratification likewise occurring when thirty-eight of them agree. This is the route sought by many progressives.
The problem is that there are thirty-one state legislatures entirely controlled by the Republican Party. Eight state legislatures are split, and of those, most splits are very narrow; the Iowa Assembly is lopsided Republican control, whereas the senate is twenty-six Democrats to twenty-four Republicans - a lead of only two for the Democrats, and thus easy for a few conservative Democrats to join their Republican colleagues in a vote. In Kentucky, their senate is dominated by the Republican Party, but Democrats hold a four-seat majority in the Assembly, however many of them are quite conservative. In Washington, only a two-Democrat majority leads its Legislature, and the Republicans control in their senate. The point is it is plausible to get thirty-eight states to agree to call for a constitutional convention - the motives, however, would very likely be a conservative-themed, rather than a progressive-themed, convention. Once making proposals, getting from zero to the needed thirty-eight states for ratification for new amendments, though still a challenge, is a realistic possibility for conservative proposals, and zero chance in hell for any progressive proposal.
If Sanders continues to push for a constitutional amendment, sees it will not come out of congress, and acquiesces to his base supporters, he might begin advocating via the bully pulpit of the office of the presidency for a convention. If such a convention occurs, progressives may inadvertently help to enshrine dozens of conservative governing ideals into the US constitution, and none of their own. This risk is remote, but if the president is advocating for it, it becomes a greater risk for progressives.